Laura Ingalls Wilder is my hero, but her books tell a painful American story
“Can you believe the news about Laura Ingalls Wilder?” “Is nothing sacred?” “Aren’t you so outraged?” The texts and emails to me, a self-described Laura superfan, started flowing in as soon as the Association for Library Services to Children announced they were changing the name of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a prestigious children’s literature honor, because of racist attitudes toward indigenous peoples in her books.
Wilder’s Little House series wildly influenced me as a young girl. I wore black, Laura-esque pioneer boots in her honor, even in the hot Florida summers. My family has slept in covered wagons at the the Ingalls homestead in De Smet, S.D., and traveled to Mansfield, Mo., to visit the home where Laura lived with her husband, Almanzo Wilder, and where she wrote many of her books. We have eaten apples out of the orchard she and Almanzo planted. (I am not sure that was technically allowed on the tour, but my husband likes to live dangerously and we are good at hiding from tour guides.)
As a young reader I found the story of the Ingalls’ life on the prairie and their grit, resourcefulness and commitment to family life laudable. I still do. Which might make it surprising that I agree with the decision by the A.L.S.C. to drop Wilder’s name from their award.
My husband, who did not grow up reading the series, had a very different experience encountering them as an adult. We started listening to the audiobooks on family trips and there were many moments when he would turn to me with a shocked expression at what we were hearing. He then proceeded to pause the story to give an explanation to our children about the racist statements the characters made and the injustice of what actually happened to Native Americans—things I did not pick up on as an 8-year-old reader.
We should not set classic works aside merely because they make us uncomfortable.
These racist comments did not deter my husband from reading the entire series aloud to our kids. He emphasized the themes that make the stories valuable to our family, such as growing our own food in our backyard, spending time together and pursuing simple living. There is much good to glean from the series, but reading it with our children has required having some difficult conversations.
Indeed, the controversy opens up some important opportunities for discussion. It is unreasonable to hold figures of the past to the standards of today’s cultural attitudes. And we should not set classic works aside merely because they make us uncomfortable. Erasing the tragedies of history or whitewashing it for our comfort can result in making the same mistakes again out of ignorance. And merely because a novel contains a racist character does not make the work itself racist. But the problem with the Little House series goes beyond Ma’s racist remarks, Pa wearing black face in a minstrel show or the statement, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Just because we have fond affection for a literary work does not mean we can ignore themes that sentimentalize injustice.
In many ways Wilder’s books create a founding story that answers questions about how our country came to be and who we are as Americans. But despite including characters that are based on historical people, the series perpetuates a myth that is more than just “dated” or “problematic.” While we can perhaps explain away Ma Ingall’s ignorance and fear of Native Americans, it is much harder to dismiss Pa’s eager willingness to knowingly steal their land when his actions are framed as noble and heroic westward expansion. Just because we have fond affection for a literary work does not mean we can ignore themes that deny the personhood of certain groups or sentimentalize injustice.
Had the A.L.S.C. promoted a ban or censorship of Wilder’s books, I would be protesting with the strings of my sunbonnet blowing in the winds of my rage. But that is not what happened. The statement about the name change emphasized that the decision did not in any way mean that the books should stop being read. And the A.L.S.C. did not choose to strip Wilder posthumously of her award (she was the first to be honored with it in 1954).
I will keep reading Wilder’s books with my children and continue having conversations with them about what virtues the Ingalls family hold that are worthy of emulation (and there are many) as well as how this story fits into the tragic American story of injustice against Native Americans. There are many things about Laura Ingalls Wilder that make her a personal hero of mine; but that does not mean I can ignore the racism in her books or close my ears when groups injured by the myths she perpetuates demand that we reassess how we interact with these texts.
These are not books to toss at an 8-year-old without walking alongside her to have serious discussions about what actually happened in the history of our country. If the renaming of this award forces even just a few people to reexamine Wilder’s books with a more critical eye, it will have been worth it.